Neil Cowley Trio: ‘Live At Montreux 2012’ Interview/Review

The NCT would seem a natural fit for the live DVD format with their witty stage repartee and unusual blend of rock, minimalism and jazz piano. And this Montreux Jazz Festival gig (which followed Tony Bennett in the Miles Davis Hall) doesn’t disappoint.

The band take to a stage lit with eerie cobalt blue, the string quartet a ghostly presence at the back. Kicking off with the sombre ‘Lament’ is a brave move but things quickly hot up on The Police-meets-Philip Glass ‘Rooster Was a Witness’.

Cowley is a whirlwind of energy, setting up some banter with the slightly woozy late-night crowd: ‘Five years of asking to play here and finally…we agreed!’

The elegant ‘Distance By Clockwork’ features some shimmering work from the strings while ‘Hope Machine’ sounds like a Mike Leigh film scored by Madness. ‘Kenny Two Steps’ is the closest this band gets to swing, with a corking Garner-esque solo from Cowley.

The multi-camera setup impressively captures every witty aside and musical grace note. In short, this is a very happy band playing powerful, often melancholy music, and it’s a good watch. I caught up with Neil to talk about the Montreux gig, the live DVD and his period as Musician-In-Residence at Derry-Londonderry.

How did it feel taking the famous Montreux stage? There seemed to be quite an interesting crowd that night…

Some of my earliest musical memories when I was going through a particularly fanatical absorption phase with all things jazz, blues and soul were of watching late screenings of the Montreux Jazz Festival on Channel 4. That was probably around 1990/’91. All the best musicians of that era certainly played on those famous stages. It felt like a massive box being ticked when we played there. One of those moments where you hope to leave your body, float in the air and get a good look at yourself following in the footsteps of legends. The crowd were certainly interesting. We found ourselves going on after Tony Bennett in The Miles Davis Hall. An unlikely match to say the least and not a group of music fans that I’d necessarily see as Neil Cowley Trio converts. But we went on with a devil-may-care attitude, played what we liked and for as long as we liked! I was told afterwards that as other shows ended, the Montreux crew and staff started gravitating towards our gig from the various other venues. So it started to become a Montreux Jazz Festival gig for the Montreux Jazz Festival!

The addition of a string quartet is an inspired idea – who are your influences in that area and what are the challenges of playing live with strings?

One of the films that really inspires me is Peter Greenaway’s ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’. I always found the pomposity of that film and its music humorously pleasing. Michael Nyman is of course the composer and so by default he had a great impact on me and lead on to other experiences such as Phillip Glass, Steve Reich and the Kronos Quartet. But also I carry the soaring melodic strings of the film music master John Barry wherever I go. The challenges come from marrying the natural urge of the trio to improvise, with the scored rigidity of a string quartet. Luckily, with the players from this particular quartet, we found people who were up for messing with those constricts as much as possible. We began to find repeated passages that they could use as beds to our improv and which could be changed on cue. It was a challenge to find the language but ultimately liberating.

You open the gig with the uncharacteristically sombre ‘Lament’ – was this a conscious move to derail expectations?

In a way. I’ve always found that ‘Lament’ acts as a ‘pallet cleanser’ going into the gig. I like people to silence their internal voices or worries before we really get hold of them. As soon as I play this tune, people become very aware of each other and the acoustics of the room. Ironically it acts as a better creator of tension than if we were to come flying in, all guns blazing. The fact that there are bass, drums and a string section sitting there mute gets the imagination and the appetite going.

‘Kenny Two Steps’ features a swing section with an almost Oscar Petersonish solo, was he an influence?

I guess any piano player with the slightest foot in jazz would have to say that Oscar Peterson was an influence. What is particularly inspiring about him is his classical level technique and the way he lends it to his jazz playing. In actual fact, I would say that Erroll Garner is more in mind when I’m playing that particular section. His lyricism, swing and downright cheek has always been a flavour I aspire to.

You had a great 2012 with this Montreux gig and your Jazz FM Artist of the Year award – what’s next?

Another album at some point for sure. Currently we are resolved to making that a trio record rather than with any addition players a la The Face of Mount Molehill. We’re also touring a lot this year internationally as well as playing the ‘Love Supreme Festival’ in the UK this July. I am musician in residence in Derry-Londonderry for the UK City of Culture 2013 which is proving to be one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life. I spend nice chunks of time there. Maybe we’ll write some of the album on that side of the Irish Sea? It’s a truly wonderful and misrepresented place. As I said on Twitter recently, if you don’t leave Derry a friendlier person, you’re a rhino-skinned casket of steel.

Can you say something about the special chemistry of your trio and Rex and Evan’s contributions?

The chemistry of the trio is something I thrive upon. Away from the performance and the recording the main dynamic is laughter. Evan is one of the best deliverers of the deadpan retort that I’ve ever met. He’s quick as a flash. I really think he should have been an actor with his mastery of the unflinching straight delivery. We like a good physical gag too. This combined with my clumsiness often leads to breakages, so valuable items are normally kept out my reach. Rex has very quickly fitted right in with all this. As well as being super intelligent, he’s a brave man. He will against all the background of ridicule (which is the unavoidable instinct of this band it seems) continue to deliver nuggets of well researched interest for us to digest. Sooner or later he’s gonna crack. On the musical side of the band, we discuss everything that arises. We share a wealth of experience in all forms of music. I think that that is a fairly unique asset for this band. There’s a lot of acquired knowledge amongst us regarding the making of good records. Which after all is a very different discipline from the live gig. Our quest in making this distinction is perhaps why we involve the likes of Dom Monks, coming as he does from the Ethan Johns stable. Dom is the man behind the sound on the records of artists such as Laura Marling, Kings Of Leon and Ray LaMontaigne. Dom has also mixed the sound on the Montreux DVD I’m glad to say.

Which contemporary piano players do you check out and is the state of jazz piano healthy?

Honestly, I don’t check that many out. That isn’t necessarily a good thing! It’s partly because my ears are looking out for other things at the moment and partly because I felt that I did my fair share of hanging off the note of every piano master at crucial learning stages in my life. I’m sure many would accuse me of missing a trick, but that’s just the way it is for me right now. I’ll go back and listen to an Erroll Garner or Ahmad Jamal record and maybe have a pang for getting my ears back into the world of piano and then five minutes later I’ll have a Can or Battles record on. But then I don’t think I’m necessarily in the business of ‘jazz piano’ within the remit of ‘Neil Cowley Trio’. The piano is just a vehicle for other aspirations really. I don’t think anyone has really heard my jazz piano playing. Not in the way I would perceive jazz piano anyway. But, hey that didn’t stop us winning ‘Jazz Artist of the Year’ at the Jazz FM awards so what do I know?! I definitely get the sense that there are many great young piano players out there. Particularly now that music colleges do specialised jazz courses, something I didn’t really have available to me when I left school. I hear a lot of players who are going through that ‘second stage’ of playing when they realise that they have a talent and a technical gift and want to play every note available to them. That’s not always a comfortable listen. Then every now and then a player will come along who plays with space and can hit you with one note that feels like they have total spiritual wisdom. Next time I hear that I will stop in my tracks and turn the Can record off.

Can you tell me a bit more about how you came to be Musician In Residence for Derry-Londonderry?

I was nominated by a music industry professional as one of 50 candidates. I still haven’t found out who nominated me. I owe them a dinner. I then had to fill out an application with my pitch for the job, detailing what I would do with my year in the role. From that process,five or six were selected for an interview for which I met up with people from the PRS Foundation, The City of Culture team and the Derry Nerve Centre. I then received a call the evening after the interview to tell me I got the position. It was one of those moments where you enjoy the instant elation and then experience mild panic at the workload. But I can’t tell you what a joy it’s been. It’s changed my life. Initially the role was about visiting the city a number of times over the year and coming up with a collaborative composition to be performed at some point down the line. This is still the core reason for my presence. However, many more facets have materialised since my first visit. As I said in my pitch, my hope was be to be liberated from the media-driven image of the city fairly early on and to use that liberation as the springboard for my compositional efforts. My hopes for this have been surpassed way beyond my expectations. It has to be one of the most musically underrated cities on the planet. There is music every ten yards on a Saturday night (in fact most nights!) and everyone seems to play an instrument. Just at the Nerve Centre where I am based (which is an unbelievable people driven arts resource in the heart of the city) most office meetings are accompanied by someone or other strumming on a guitar whilst juggling a laptop in the other hand. There is something called the ‘Music Promise’ which is going on throughout 2013. Principally this is about every young person of all abilities and creeds being given the opportunity to create music within the City of Culture year. It’s a mammoth task and so many people are working tirelessly to make it happen. The only thing I find slightly frustrating is the apathy coming from this side of the Irish Sea for the City of Culture in general. There is definitely a feeling in Derry that London and all its broadcasting prowess may miss out on this amazing opportunity to document some of the inspiring work going on. I’m very evangelical about the place. But then I defy anyone who spends a weekend there not to be. The hunger for music, theatre, dance and all forms of creativity is mind-blowing. Don’t believe what you read. It’s not the Derry-Londonderry that the news headlines serve up…

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